Despite the bright light that this blog hopes to shine on Kaisertown, the community is not without problems. Among them are heavy drug use, drug houses, absentee landlords, decline of owner occupied housing and safety of the neighborhood (either perceived or real).
And then there is the commercial strip filled with vacant storefronts. In my eyes, this is the number one issue that is preventing Kaisertown from re-emerging as a family-friendly, elderly-friendly neighborhood with the ability to attract a new generation of young people who can call it home.
There are many reasons that a successful retail corridor is vital to Kaisertown. Walkability is a key factor that makes our neighborhood unique- but what good is it if there is little to walk to? Few people want to walk a neighborhood filled with empty storefronts. Additionally, this feeds into the safety issue. A street filled with residents chatting, shopping, eating and drinking is ALWAYS safer than one that is empty. All of those actions are brought about by engaging storefronts and community gathering spaces.
If you look at Clinton Street with a critical eye, you will notice that there are missing elements that make a complete streetscape. Trees, plants, street level signage, outdoor eating spaces, cross-walks, bike paths and inviting storefronts are among the issues. In order for Kaisertown to move forward, Clinton Street must be invested in. All of these factors have a real and perceived effect on the quality of the neighborhood, its value and its safety.
So what about the vacant storefronts? I think there are two main issues that lend itself to the prevalence of empty storefronts on Clinton Street. First, either owners aren’t invested in the community or are absentee landlords. Second, there has been a high failure rate and rapid turnover of businesses on Clinton Street and property owners no longer think it’s a good use of time to try to lease the property because it has harvested poor results.
What can be done? I think this issue needs more discussion and more pressure placed on property owners. It should be a priority for our councilman and for our neighborhood Coalition. If property owners are having a difficult time finding a tenant, perhaps there are other options. Pop-up shops are incredibly popular right now. I see no reason why we couldn’t utilize an empty storefront for short term seasonal use. Sometimes small businesses need a boost to get started and pop-ups can offer just that, especially if the property owner or neighborhood group is willing to offer a reduction in rent in order to secure a new business. Often times, this can lead to the tenant staying in the neighborhood permanently.
Another popular concept is advertising. Often in large cities (or even in Buffalo) one can find an empty storefront window that temporarily rents its window space to a company looking to advertise inexpensively. Clinton Street is ideal for this as it connects the suburbs to downtown and many people use it for their daily commutes. Suppose that instead of empty or boarded up store windows, there were colorful advertisements promoting a local company. This not only puts money in the pockets of the property owner, it improves the vibrancy of the streetscape and may just result in someone taking notice of the building.
A third option could be to actively pursue the type of business that we desire. What do we want in Kaisertown? What type of business would we support? Not just seasonally, but regularly. If there is a consensus on what we are missing, we can pursue it. Do we want a bakery? Let’s go find someone who wishes to open one! Do we want a Chinese food restaurant, or a bagel shop, or a place that makes great burritos? Buffalo is rapidly filling with entrepreneurs who wish to be successful. College classes and public programs are being made available to assist with this. If new entrepreneurs want to set up shop somewhere, why not here?
Kaisertown still has a lot going for it, but it is unlikely to see drastic improvement until Clinton Street becomes more relevant. Clinton Street is the face of our neighborhood. It has the power to attract great neighbors or shabby ones. If you were shopping for a home would you choose one that is adjacent to a thriving retail strip or one that suffers from abandonment? Investment encourages others to see what is possible, and that is what we should be showing passersby. It’s clear that what has been happening on Clinton Street isn’t working. It’s time to try a new approach.